Bangladesh must speak out against forced cremation of Muslims in Sri Lanka

Baby Shaykh was only 20 days old when his life came to a tragic end last December out of a sudden illness. Born in a Muslim family in Sri Lanka, his last rites would be a burial followed by a funeral but instead, authorities cremated his body against the wishes of his parents. A rapid test for COVID-19 (an antigen test) returned positive, yet his parents, including his mother who was breast feeding him, tested negative. This has created doubts in his parents’ mind about the credibility of the test. The authorities had no sympathy for the desperate pleas and protests of Baby Shaykh’s parents.  The bodies of Muslims who die or are suspected of having died of COVID-19 are resigned to the same fate across Sri Lanka.  

Muslims, who make up nine per cent of the population of Sri Lanka, have historically faced violence, harassment, and discrimination, especially since 2012. This anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has now manifested itself in an arbitrary government policy which orders the cremation of anyone who has died of COVID-19 or are suspected to have died of COVID-19. This has caused great distress to Muslims, as the act of cremation is explicitly forbidden in Islam. With the human rights situation of Sri Lanka coming under review at the 46th UN Human Rights Council session, beginning on 22 February 2021, it is imperative that the government of Bangladesh, as a member of the council, stands in solidarity with the minority Muslim community in Sri Lanka who are being denied dignity in their final moments.  

While it is becoming increasingly difficult for Muslims in Sri Lanka to live in peace, with the constant fear of further threats, discrimination and violence hanging over the community, the government seems to have used COVID-19 as an excuse to ensure Muslims in Sri Lanka cannot even die in peace.

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which has a forced cremations policy to dispose of COVID-19 victims. Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health in 2020 originally permitted both burials and cremations. However, the health ministry amended the guidelines to make cremations mandatory after the body of the first Muslim to succumb to the virus was forcibly cremated, against the wishes of the victim’s family, and in spite of vehement protests from religious leaders, politicians and the wider Muslim community

The government’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Sugath Samaraweera, claimed that burials would “contaminate ground drinking water”. The State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID-19 Disease Control, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, in January 2021, has since refuted this claim. Additionally, interim guidance set out by the World Health Organization on the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19, provides that victims of the virus can be buried or cremated. In a letter to the Health Minister, Muslim groups reported that over 185 countries allow for the burial of COVID-19 victims, making Sri Lanka an outlier in its disregard for the religious practices of minorities.

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has strongly criticized the forced cremation of COVID-19 victims. Under pressure from various groups, including the Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry PC, it was reported on 4 November that a government-appointed committee would meet to reassess the government’s policy on mandatory cremations, but on 22 November, the committee reaffirmed the earlier decision, without giving reasons. Subsequently, a second expert committee appointed by the health ministry in December, stated that burial of victims of COVID-19 would be safe. Yet, the country’s health minister dismissed these recommendations in Parliament, stating that the second committee was “informal”.

On 1 December 2020, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka dismissed all Fundamental Rights petitions before it which challenged the directive on mandatory cremations, without providing any reasoning, thereby closing the door to further legal challenges, and any domestic recourse to this violation of religious rights. According to a news report in the same month, of 124 deaths due to COVID-19 whose bodies have been cremated, as many as 50 of them are Muslims. There have also been reports of instances where bodies of Muslims who tested negative for COVID-19 were forcibly cremated.

On 11 February 2021, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking in Parliament, stated that burials of COVID-19 victims would be allowed. Yet, the next day, the State Minister Sudarshini Fernandopulle, who had earlier sought compliance with scientific findings about COVID-19, stated that mandatory cremations would continue until the government’s expert committee reached a conclusion. The polarized opinions of expert committees and indecision of the Sri Lankan authorities, in spite of the clear international guidelines, not only demonstrate a lack of empathy towards religious minorities in the country but also a disregard to their human right.

Reports also indicate that families are being forced to bear the cost of cremation, typically around LKR 50,000-60,000 (approximately BDT 21,850-26,200), in a year that has economically strained many families. The cruelty of not only having to stand idle as a loved one’s body is desecrated but being forced to shoulder the cost of this act has led some Muslim families to refuse the ashes and the associated payment, in an act of protest.

Against a backdrop of attacks targeting Muslim businesses, homes and places of worship in the country through 2014, 2017, 2018, and following the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, these latest directives come at a time when Muslims in Sri Lanka already have plenty to fear. In a year when we have seen the importance of solidarity as communities rally together to survive the pandemic, Sri Lanka has chosen to further alienate a community already reeling from violence, hatemongering, and discrimination.

The government of Bangladesh, as a regional ally, can demand that the Sri Lankan government reverses this unnecessary practice of forced cremations that has had a devastating and discriminatory effect on the Muslim community. The Bangladeshi government can also raise the issue as a concern at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions, where it has the power to vote in support of promoting human rights in Sri Lanka. At a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment is on a rise in Sri Lanka, the government of Bangladesh must stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in Sri Lanka who are being put through unspeakable pain. It must uphold its international commitments to ensure that no one is subjected to discrimination based on their religion, and the right to freedom of religion. The Bangladeshi government must join the fight to end this discriminatory policy and ensure Muslims in Sri Lanka can be laid to rest in peace.

Saad Hammadi is South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International. His Twitter handle is @saadhammadi

This op-ed originally appeared in The Dhaka Tribune